Gammer Gueton's Needle
Slowly and lost in gloomy thought, John Heywood walked toward his
lodgings. These lodgings were situated in the second or inner court of
the vast palace of Whitehall, in that wing of the castle which contained
the apartments of all the higher officers of the royal household, and so
those of the court-jesters also; for the king's fool was at that period
a very important and respectable personage, who occupied a rank equal to
that of a gentleman of the royal bed-chamber.
John Heywood had just crossed this second courtyard, when all at once
loud, wrangling voices, and the clear, peculiar ring of a box on the
ear, startled him out of his meditations. He stopped and listened. His
face, before so serious, had now reassumed its usual merry and shrewd
expression; his large eyes again glittered with humor and mischief.
"There again verily is my sweet, charming housekeeper, Gammer Gurton,"
said John Heywood, laughing; "and she no doubt is quarrelling again with
my excellent servant, that poor, long-legged, blear-eyed Hodge. Ah! ha!
Yesterday I surprised her as she applied a kiss to him, at which he made
as doleful a face as if a bee had stung him. To-day I hear how she is
boxing his ears. He is perhaps now laughing at it, and thinks it is a
rose-leaf which cools his cheek. That Hodge is such a queer bird! But we
will at once see what there is to-day, and what farce is being performed
He crept softly up-stairs, and, opening the door of his room, closed it
again behind him quickly and gently. Gammer Gurton, who was in the room
adjoining, had heard nothing, seen nothing; and had the heavens come
tumbling down at that moment, she would have scarcely noticed it; for
she had eyes and sense only for this long, lank lackey who stood before
her shaking with fear, and staring at her out of his great bluish-white
eyes. Her whole soul lay in her tongue; and her tongue ran as fast as
a will-wheel, and with the force of thunder. How, then, could Gammer
Gurton well have time and ears to hear her master, who had softly
entered his chamber and slyly crept to the door, only half closed, which
separated his room from that of the housekeeper? "How!" screamed Gammer
Gurtoh, "you silly raga muffin, you wish to make me believe that it was
the cat that ran away with my sewing-needle, as if my sewing-needle were
a mouse and smelt of bacon, you stupid, blear-eyed fool!"
"Ah, you call me a fool," cried Hodge, with a laugh, which caused his
mouth to describe a graceful line across his face from ear to ear;
"you call me a fool, and that is a great honor for me, for then I am a
servant worthy of my master. And as to being blear-eyed, that must be
caused by the simple fact that I have nothing all day long before my
eyes but you, Gammer Gurton--you, with your face like a full moon--you,
sailing through the room like a frigate, and with your grappling-irons,
your hands, smashing to pieces everything except your own
"You shall pay me for that, you double-faced, thread-bare lout!"
screamed Gammer Gurton, as she rushed on Hodge with clenched fist.
But John Heywood's cunning servant had anticipated this; he had already
slipped under the large table which stood in the middle of the room.
As the housekeeper now made a plunge to drag him out of his extemporary
fortress, he gave her such a hearty pinch on the leg, that she sprang
back with a scream, and sank, wholly overcome by the pain, into the
huge, leather-covered elbow-chair which was near her workstand at the
"You are a monster, Hodge," groaned she, exhausted--"a heartless,
horrible monster. You have stolen my sewing-needle--you only. For you
knew very well that it was my last one, and that, if I have not that, I
must go at once to the shopkeeper to buy some needles. And that is just
what you want, you weathercock, you. You only want me to go out, that
you may have an opportunity to play with Tib."
"Tib? Who is Tib?" asked Hodge as he stretched out his long neck
from under the table, and stared at Gammer Gurton with well-assumed
"Now this otter wants me yet to tell him who Tib is!" screamed the
exasperated dame. "Well, then, I will tell you. Tib is the cook for the
major-domo over there--a black-eyed, false, coquettish little devil, who
is bad and mean enough to troll away the lover of an honest and virtuous
woman, as I am; a lover who is such a pitiful little thing that one
would think no one but myself could find him out and see him; nor could
I have done it had I not for forty years trained my eyes to the search,
and for forty years looked around for the man who was at length to marry
me, and make me a respectable mistress. Since my eyes then were at last
steadily fixed on this phantom of man, and I found nothing there, I
finally discovered you, you cobweb of a man!"
"What! you call me a cobweb?" screamed Hodge, as he crept from under
the table, and, drawing himself up to his full height, placed himself
threateningly in front of Gammer Gurton's elbow-chair. "You call me a
cobweb? Now, I swear to you that you shall henceforth never more be
the spider that dwells in that web! For you are a garden-spider, an
abominable, dumpy, old garden-spider, for whom a web, such as Hodge is,
is much too fine and much too elegant. Be quiet, therefore, old spider,
and spin your net elsewhere! You shall not live in my net, but Tib--for,
yes, I do know Tib. She is a lovely, charming child of fourteen, as
quick and nimble as a kid, with lips red as the coral which you wear on
your fat pudding of a neck, with eyes which shine yet brighter than your
nose, and with a figure so slender and graceful that she might have
been carved out of one of your fingers. Yes, yes, I know Tib. She is an
affectionate, good child, who would never be so hard-hearted as to
abuse the man she loves, and could not be so mean and pitiful, even in
thought, as to wish to marry the man she did not love. Just because he
is a man. Yes, I know Tib, and now I will go straight to her and ask her
if she will marry a good, honest lad, who, to be sure, is somewhat lean,
but who doubtless will become fatter if he has any other fare than the
meagre, abominable stuff on which Gammer Gurton feeds him; a lad who, to
be sure, is blear-eyed, but will soon get over that disease when he no
more sees Gammer Gurton, who acts on his eyes like a stinking onion, and
makes them always red and running water. Good-by, old onion! I am going
But Gammer Gurton whirled up out of her elbow-chair like a top, and was
upon Hodge, whom she held by the coat-tail, and brought him to a stand.
"You dare go to Tib again! You dare pass that door and you shall see
that the gentle, peaceable, and patient Gammer Gurton is changed into
a lioness, when any one tries to tear from her that most sacred and
dearest of treasures, her husband. For you are my husband, inasmuch as I
have your word that you will marry me."
"But I have not told you when and where I will do it, Gammer Gurton;
and so you can wait to all eternity, for only in heaven will I be your
"That is an abominable, malicious lie!" screamed Gammer Gurton. "A
good-for-nothing lie, say I! For did you not long ago snivel and beg
till I was forced to promise you to make a will, and in it declare
Hodge, my beloved husband, sole heir of all my goods and chattels, and
bequeath to him everything I have scraped together in my virtuous and
"But you did not make it--the will. You broke your word; and, therefore,
I will do the same."
"Yes, I have made it, you greyhound. I have made it; and this very day
I was going with you to a justice of the peace and have it signed, and
then to-morrow we would have got married."
"You have made the will, you round world of love?" said Hodge tenderly,
as with his long, withered, spindling arms he tried to clasp the
gigantic waist of his beloved. "You have made the will and declared me
your heir? Come, then, Gammer Gurton, come, let us go to the justice of
"But do you not see, then," said Gammer Gurton, with a tender, cat-like
purr, "do you not see, then, that you rumple my frill when you hug me
so? Let me go, then, and help me find my needle quickly, for without the
needle we cannot go to the justice of the peace."
"What, without the needle not go to the justice of the peace?"
"No; for only see this hole which Gib, the cat, tore in my prettiest cap
awhile ago, as I took the cap out of the box and laid it on the table.
Indeed I cannot go to the justice of the peace with such a hole in my
cap! Search then, Hodge, search, so that I can mend my cap, and go with
you to the justice of the peace!"
"Lord God, where in the world can it be, the unlucky needle? I must
have it, I must find it, so that Gammer Gurton may take her will to the
justice of the peace!"
And in frantic desperation, Hodge searched all about on the floor for
the lost needle, and Gammer Gurton stuck her large spectacles on her
flaming red nose and peered about on the table. So eager was she in the
search, that she even let her tongue rest a little, and deep silence
reigned in the room.
Suddenly this silence was broken by a voice; which seemed to come from
the courtyard. It was a soft, sweet voice that cried: "Hodge, dear
Hodge, are you there? Come to me in the court, only for a few minutes! I
want to have a bit of a laugh with you!"
It was as though an electric shock had passed through the room with that
voice, and struck at the same time both Gammer Gurton and Hodge.
Both startled, and discontinuing the search, stood there wholly
immovable, as if petrified. Hodge especially, poor Hodge, was as if
struck by lightning. His great bluish-white eyes appeared to be coming
out of their sockets; his long arms hung down, flapping and dangling
about like a flail; his knees, half bent, seemed already to be giving
way in expectation of the approaching storm.
This storm did not in fact make him wait long. "That is Tib!" screamed
Gammer Gurton, springing like a lioness upon Hodge and seizing him
by the shoulders with both her hands. "That is Tib, you thread-like,
pitiful greyhound! Well, was I not right, now, when I called you a
faithless, good-for-nothing scamp, that spares not innocence, and breaks
the hearts of the women as he would a cracker, which he swallows at his
pleasure? Was I not right, in saying that you were only watching for me
to go out in order to go and sport with Tib?"
"Hodge, my dear, darling Hodge," cried the voice beneath there, and this
time louder and more tender than before, "Hodge, oh come, do now, come
with me in the court, as you promised me; come and get the kiss for
which you begged me this morning!"
"I will be a damned otter, if I begged her for it, and if I understand a
single word of what she says!" said Hodge, wholly dumfounded and quaking
"Ah, you understand not a word of what she says?" screamed Gammer
Gurton. "Well, but I understand it. I understand that everything between
us is past and done with, and that I have nothing more to do with you,
you Moloch, you! I understand that I shall not go and make my will,
to become your wife and fret myself to death over this skeleton of a
husband, that I may leave you to chuckle as my heir. No, no, it is past.
I am not going to the justice of the peace, and I will tear up my will!"
"Oh, she is going to tear up her will!" howled Hodge; "and then I have
tormented myself in vain; in vain have endured the horrible luck of
being loved by this old owl! Oh, oh, she will not make her will, and
Hodge will remain the same miserable dog he always was!"
Gammer Gurton laughed scornfully. "Ah, you are aware at last what a
pitiable wretch you are, and how much a noble and handsome person, as I
am, lowered herself when she made up her mind to pick up such a weed and
make him her husband."
"Yes, yes, I know it!" whined Hodge; "and I pray you pick me up and take
me, and above all things make your will!"
"No, I will not take you, and I shall not make my will! It is all over
with, I tell you; and now you can go as soon as you please to Tib, who
has called you so lovingly. But first give me back my sewing-needle, you
magpie, you! Give me here my sewing-needle, which you have stolen. It is
of no use to you now, for it is not necessary for me to go out in order
that you may go and see Tib. We have nothing more to do with each other,
and you can go where you wish. My sewing-needle, say I--my needle, or I
will hang you as a scarecrow in my pea-patch, to frighten the sparrows
out of it. My sewing-needle, or--"
She shook her clenched fist threateningly at Hodge, fully convinced that
now, as always before, Hodge would retreat before this menacing weapon
of his jealous and irritable lady-love, and seek safety under the bed or
This time, however, she was mistaken. Hodge, who saw that all was lost,
felt that his patience was at length exhausted; and his timidity was
now changed to the madness of despair. The lamb was transformed into
a tiger, and with a tiger's rage he pounced upon Gammer Gurton, and,
throwing aside her fist, he dealt her a good sound blow on the cheek.
The signal was given, and the battle began. It was waged by both sides
with equal animosity and equal vigor; only Hodge's bony hand made by far
the most telling blows on Gammer Gurton's mass of flesh, and was always
certain, wherever he struck, to hit some spot of this huge mass; while
Gammer Gurton's soft hand seldom touched that thin, threadlike figure,
which dexterously parried every blow.
"Stop, you fools!" suddenly shouted a stentorian voice. "See you not,
you goblins, that your lord and master is here? Peace, peace then,
you devils, and do not be hammering away at one another, but love each
"It is the master!" exclaimed Gammer Gurton, lowering her fist in the
"Do not turn me away, sir!" moaned Hodge; "do not dismiss me from
your service because at last I have for once given the old hag a good
bruising. She has deserved it a long time, and an angel himself must at
last lose patience with her."
"I turn you out of my service!" exclaimed John Heywood, as he wiped his
eyes, wet with laughing. "No, Hodge, you are a real jewel, a mine of fun
and merriment; and you two have, without knowing it, furnished me with
the choicest materials for a piece which, by the king's order, I have
to write within six days. I owe you, then, many thanks, and will show
my gratitude forthwith. Listen well to me, my amorous and tender pair of
turtle-doves, and mark what I have to say to you. One cannot always tell
the wolf by his hide, for he sometimes put on a sheep's skin; and so,
too, a man cannot always be recognized by his voice, for he sometimes
borrows that of his neighbor. Thus, for example, I know a certain John
Heywood, who can mimic exactly the voice of a certain little miss
named Tib, and who knows how to warble as she herself: 'Hodge, my dear
Hodge!'" And he repeated to them exactly, and with the same tone and
expression, the words that the voice had previously cried.
"Ah, it was you, sir?" cried Hodge, with a broad grin--"that Tib in the
court there, that Tib about whom we have been pummelling each other?"
"I was Tib, Hodge--I who was present during the whole of your quarrel,
and found it hugely comical to send Tib's voice thundering into the
midst of our lovers' quarrel, like a cannon-stroke! Ah, ha! Hodge, that
was a fine bomb-shell, was it not? And as I said 'Hodge, my dear Hodge,'
you tumbled about like a kernel of corn which a dung-beetle blows with
his breath. No, no, my worthy and virtuous Gammer Gurton, it was not Tib
who called the handsome Hodge, and more than that, I saw Tib, as your
contest began, go out at the courtyard gate."
"It was not Tib!" exclaimed Gammer Gurton, much moved, and happy as love
could make her. "It was not Tib, and she was not in the court at
all, and Hodge could not then go down to her, while I went to the
shopkeeper's to buy needles. Oh, Hodge, Hodge, will you forgive me for
this; will you forget the hard words which I spoke in the fury of my
anguish, and can you love me again?"
"I will try," said Hodge, gravely; "and without doubt I shall succeed,
provided you go to-day forthwith to the justice, and make your will."
"I will make my will, and to-morrow we will go to the priest; shall it
not be so, my angel?"
"Yes, we go to the priest to-morrow!" growled Hodge, as with a frightful
grimace he scratched himself behind the ears.
"And now come, my angel, and give me a kiss of reconciliation!" She
spread her arms out, and when Houge did not come to her, but remained
immovable, and steadfast in his position, she went to Hodge and pressed
him tenderly to her heart.
Suddenly she uttered a shriek, and let go of Hodge, She had felt a
terrible pain in her breast. It seemed as though a small dagger had
pierced her bosom.
And there it was, the lost needle, and Hodge then was innocent and pure
as the early dawn.
He had not mischievously purloined the needle, so that Gammer Gurton
would be compelled to leave her house in order to fetch some new needles
from the shopkeeper's; he had not intended to go to Tib, for Tib was not
in the court, but had gone out.
"Oh Hodge, Hodge, good Hodge, you innocent dove, will you forgive me?"
"Come to the justice of the peace, Gammer Gurton, and I forgive you!"
They sank tenderly into each other's arms, wholly forgetful of their
master, who still stood near them, and looked on, laughing and nodding
"Now, then, I have found the finest and most splendid materials for my
piece," said John Heywood, as he left the loving pair and betook himself
to his own room. "Gammer Gurton has saved me, and King Henry will not
have the satisfaction of seeing me whipped by those most virtuous and
most lovely ladies of his court. To work, then, straightway to work!"
He seated himself at his writing-desk, and seized pen and paper.
"But how!" asked he, suddenly pausing. "That is certainly a rich subject
for a composition; but I can never in the world get an interlude out of
it! What shall I do with it? Abandon this subject altogether, and again
jeer at the monks and ridicule the nuns? That is antiquated and worn
out! I will write something new, something wholly new, and something
which will make the king so merry, that he will not sign a death-warrant
for a whole day. Yes, yes, a merry play shall it be, and then I will
call it boldly and fearlessly a comedy!"
He seized his pen and wrote: "Gammer Gurton's Needle, a right pithy,
pleasant, and merry comedy."
And thus originated the first English comedy, by John Heywood, fool to
King Henry the Eighth. [Footnote: This comedy was first printed in the
year 1661, but it was represented at Christ College fully a hundred
years previously. Who was the author of it is not known with certainty;
but it is possible that the writer of it was John Heywood, the
epigrammatist and court-jester.--See Dramaturgic oder Theorie und
Geschichte der dramatischen Kunst, von Theodore Mundt, vol i, p. 809.
Flogel's Geschichte der Hofnarren, p. 399.]